Spokane Journal of Business

Window Dressing: Art as a catalyst


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-—Treva Lind
Ginger Ewing and Alan Chatham say the local artwork can make vacant space in the city’s core more attractive.

Ink paintings of animals hang in a downtown Spokane storefront along First Avenue, where pedestrians and drivers slowing in traffic can glance at the artwork. 

Spokane-based Window Dressing, a nonprofit arts program, orchestrated the display at 1011 W. First among a handful of other exhibits downtown aimed at filling empty commercial spaces with temporary art, events and creative enterprises. Passersby viewing the displays also might notice real estate signs that seek permanent tenants.

Launched two years ago, Window Dressing has a goal to spark vibrancy where vacancies might otherwise turn into drab and dark spaces. Director Ginger Ewing says the nonprofit offers a dual purpose of providing opportunities to artists and other creative business owners, while also attracting potential tenants to the city’s core. 

“It’s kind of like staging a home in residential real estate,” says Ewing, who also co-founded the separate Spokane art nonprofit Terrain. “We’re helping people visualize what a space can be.”

She adds, “When buildings sit empty, vandalism increases and foot traffic decreases. There is perception of areas becoming dangerous. For decades now, Spokane has hemorrhaged its young and creative people who have gone to other attractive cities that have the infrastructure allowing them to flourish. This is a small part in helping to change that.”

In 2015, Window Dressing showed the work of 22 artists in five downtown locations. It’s currently showing the work of nine artists in four locations. In the past month, 10 property owners have approached the nonprofit with potential locations for creative enterprises or art displays, she says, “so we’re at this moment of explosion.” 

This summer, the nonprofit will begin seeking applications for up to 15 creative entrepreneurs to open businesses in vacant spaces for short-term, rent-free trials. Selected individuals also will train in Spokane Community College’s eight-week Small Business Boot Camp, offered through the Avista Center for Entrepreneurship at SCC.

Window Dressing’s startup applicants will be selected in a juried process from submitted proposals, Ewing says. A similar program in Tacoma has attracted and retained creative enterprises that became permanent, paying leaseholders, she adds.

“We expect to put out a call in June to entrepreneurs with the goal to select participants by the end of summer, and place businesses in the fall,” Ewing says. “However, we’re in conversation with a handful of entrepreneurs who are ready and potentially could be beta candidates (earlier).”

Window Dressing will work with property owners offering vacant spaces to its enterprises for six months for free, while the entrepreneurs pay for utilities and agree to vacate within 30 days if a paying tenant or better offer is secured. 

Ewing says such entrepreneurs could include people successfully selling handmade items on Etsy.com, or at a farmers market, and now wanting a store setting. About six months ago, the nonprofit identified 27 potential vacant locations for art installations and creative enterprises.

Window Dressing, based in the Fellow Coworking office at 304 W. Pacific, gained recent visibility after placing art displays in a Ridpath storefront, on the Motor Inn side. 

“We had about five different artists’ work in the Motor Inn side,” Ewing says. “We’re in the process of taking over the Ridpath side now, and we have 10 additional artists.”

Ewing, at first a volunteer, partnered in November 2014 with Alan Chatham, an arts supporter and founder of the nonprofit Laboratory Spokane, which has focused on digital and interactive art in empty storefronts. Laboratory Spokane hired Ewing 14 months ago to expand Window Dressing, under shared goals to grow arts and downtown revitalization.

Chatham adds, “In these areas that have high vacancies, we have the potential to become the anchor tenants, in a sense, by installing a business that starts drawing other tenants.”

Window Dressing is operating this year with a $91,000 budget, and Ewing is the sole paid employee. It receives a small amount of grant money, along with startup funding provided by Laboratory Spokane. Ewing is seeking additional grants, along with sponsors and newly available city arts funding. Its Laboratory Spokane funding ends January 2017. 

Under its budget, the nonprofit plans to cover a $250 tuition cost for creative entrepreneurs to enroll in the SCC boot camp. “I’m fundraising, so it would be free to them,” adds Ewing.

Window Dressing also has worked for about a year with a business steering committee to help guide its steps. Members include Steve Trabun, Avista Utilities; Alicia Barbieri, Goodale & Barbieri Co.; Andrew Rolwes, Downtown Spokane Partnership; Karli Ingersoll, Bartlett co-owner; Jon Snyder, Spokane City Council; and Ryan Arnold, Greater Spokane Incorporated.

Trabun, regional business manager for Avista, says Window Dressing’s program is a plus for creative enterprises, property owners, and the community that gains jobs, culture, and arts. Business training for new enterprises is a crucial piece, he says.

“What’s really important is to make sure they have the business skills,” Trabun says. “This gives them the opportunity to go into an unused space, preferably as retail, and put a business idea to work for six months.” 

Window Dressing’s community partners include DSP, River Park Square, Washington Trust Bank, and Spokane Arts. It’s also mentoring with similar programs, Renew Newcastle in Australia and Spaceworks Tacoma. 

A few examples of successful businesses emerging from the Tacoma initiative are a film-related business, a clothes designer, and a history exhibition developer. Window Dressing will be purchasing business curriculum geared to creative enterprises from Spaceworks to be used as part of the SCC boot camp training here. 

Overall, supporters have helped the nonprofit better prepare, Ewing says, such as through understanding building code requirements and timeframes to vacate spaces if necessary. The nonprofit will work on the best matches for all parties, Ewing adds.

“We can vacate the space in 96 hours for art installations, and 30 days for creative businesses,” she says. “For questions on liability insurance, Window Dressing takes on general liability insurance.” 

Ewing first explored the idea behind Window Dressing as a favor to a property owner, until research unlocked more potential.

“I realized the profound effect that programs like Storefronts Seattle, Spaceworks Tacoma, and Renew Newcastle were having on downtown cores and business districts,” Ewing says. “Here is an incredible tool to spark revitalization.”

“In Tacoma in the first two years, they placed 36 businesses,” she adds. “Of those 36, 27 have become paying tenants, and of that, roughly 60 percent are staying in the location they were placed in, while 15 percent moved on to bigger locations because of growth.” 

At Downtown Spokane Partnership’s annual meeting held last month, Window Dressing was recognized as one of four innovative projects and projects that are helping to move the downtown area forward this year.

Treva Lind
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